“There was a decent precedent for a wartime election”
Submitted photo Dr. John Bradley Courtland was a former mayor of Pembroke and incumbent North Renfrew MPP who fought the 1943 provincial election called by Harry Nixon.
Have you ever heard of Gordon Daniel Conant? How about Harry Nixon?
You would be forgiven if you hadn't. Both men were Liberal premiers of Ontario with less than a year in office between the two of them.
Conant was a former reeve of Oshawa who later rose to provincial politics serving as Attorney General in the cabinet of Mitchell Hepburn. He came into the premier's office by an unusual route. Hepburn's feud with Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King threaten to destroy the party, in particular the Liberals' grip on Ontario (afterall, Hepburn had supported Conservative Arthur Meighen in his Toronto byelection bid. Later, the premier compared King to Hitler).
Hepburn agreed to step down as premier but remain as head of the provincial Liberal party and as treasurer in the cabinet. On instruction from Hepburn, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Albert Matthews, appointed Conant on Oct. 21, 1942. The party membership, however, wasn't placated and a leadership convention was held at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto on April 30, 1943.
Conant had let his name stand, however, he collapsed hours before the first ballot was cast. Once the vote was taken, Harry Nixon, was had been the provincial secretary in the cabinet, emerged the winner with 418 ballots beating out Thomas McQuesten, MPP for Hamilton-Wentworth, Arthur Roebuck, the former attorney general and lawyer Walter Thomson. Nixon was sworn-in as the 13th premier on May 18.
The writ was dropped for a province-wide election that summer. Locally, the Liberal incumbent MP was Dr. John Courtland Bradley. The former Town of Pembroke mayor had represented the riding of Renfrew North since 1934. The Progressive Conservatives chose as their flag-bearer Stanley Hunt, the former reeve of Alice Township and one-term Renfrew County warden.
During their nomination convention at Victoria Hall in Pembroke, the Liberals once more backed Courtland after Wallace Fraser, the mayor of Pembroke, told supporters he would not accept the nomination if it was offered (Frank Nighbor Jr., Robert Burns and Westmeath Reeve John MacLean were also potential contenders). Before the election was called Courtland had intended to retire. Many observers were struck by how small the convention was, however, there was an answer for that.
“The convention was sparsely attended, a fact that was attributed to the fact that farmers throughout the county were busy with their hay and could not leave their farms,” stated the Pembroke Standard-Observer. “Ralph Melville Warren, MP, said that he had telephoned about a dozen of his neighbors and asked them to attend the convention, but none of them could spare the time.”
The Liberals received a strong campaign launch with a keynote address from Walter Thomson, the man who might have been premier. He came to Pembroke specifically to represent Nixon at the convention and immediately countered criticism from Progressive Conservative leader George Drew (a former lieutenant-colonel in the First World War) that the Liberals had called an election as Canada was engaged in a world war.
“There was a decent precedent for a wartime election,” stated Thomson, a lawyer and rancher from Hastings County who was later elected to the House of Commons and ran again for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party in 1951. He also defended the opportunity for family members to cast ballots for soldiers serving overseas. “The men overseas are out of touch with conditions here and would welcome an opportunity to have someone at home cast their ballots for them.”
Hitting the campaign trail, Hunt promoted the Tory platform that promised increased educational funding, universal medical and dental care and improved pensions for seniors. Hunt attacked the Liberals for increasing the gasoline tax even as provincial revenues were going up. He also warned voters against supporting the socialist Ontario Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), led by Ted Jolliffe.
“The CCF program is the beginning of a communist doctrine and there is no room for that in this system of government,” said Hunt. “They are promising the labour men everything to induce them to vote for them and they are promising the farmers things they know little about but every point in the program worthy of consideration is coveed in a sane, sensible manner by Colonel Drew.”
Another one of Hunt's supporters had stronger words for the CCF. Major James Franklin Belford, MPP for Northumberland from 1923 to 1926, charged in a rally at the Pembroke Armouries that Nixon would be a puppet of Mackenzie King. But he insisted that, “the Nazis in Germany, at the beginning of their climb to power, preached the same things that the CCF is now preaching. Many things are promised to the farmer and labouring man, but they will be regulated and regimented if the CCF gains power.”
For the Liberals, Bradley was promoting a future hydro project for the Ottawa River after Queen's Park had announced an interprovincial agreement between Ontario and Quebec. The Conservatives had made hay of the deal saying the Liberals were selling out to private power interests in Quebec. Furthermore, the Tories said any project at the rapids at Des Joachims, the site identified for the hydro station, would be transmitting power to other regions of Ontario but not North Renfrew. Stumping for Bradley, Arthur. G. Slaght, the MPP for Parry Sound, dismissed such charges. He pledged that the Liberals would be spending $25 million over the next two years to build the dam at Des Joachims.
“The Nixon government and the Hydro Commission will see to it that the people of this district will have priority on this power and their needs will be considered before those of any other section,” stated Slaght during a Pembroke rally. “I say this with authority.”
In a passionate speech, Slaght said the Ontario Liberal policy had been “evidenced by deeds, not words,” since the outbreak of the Second World War. He said his party will devote their complete energies to winning the war and upholding freedom. Slaght stated that the Liberals will work with the Dominion government in special measures for health and social security where provincial consent is required.
The election on Aug. 4, 1943 saw the end of an era and the beginning of a dynasty in Ontario. The Conservatives secured a minority government under George Drew taking 38 seats. This was the start of 42 years of uninterrupted Tory rule. The CCF finished in second place with 34 seats, while the Liberals came in third place with 15 seats. Nixon would later resign as Liberal leader. Hepburn became the interim leader and led the party in the 1945 provincial election. Harry Nixon remained an MPP for Brant County until his death on Oct. 22, 1961.
Here in Pembroke, Stanley Hunt led the Conservatives to victory with a 688-vote majority. Hunt had received 4,158 ballots, compared to 3,470 for Dr. Bradley. A.T. Sweezey, who represented the CCF, garnered 2,465 votes. Poll clerks estimated 10,000 out of an estimated 14,802 eligible voters cast ballots.
“A man of pleasing personality and high character, Mr. Hunt rightly enjoys the esteem of all who know him. The riding will be well represented,” declared the Pembroke Bulletin.
Hunt received majorities in the Town of Pembroke, the villages of Cobden and Chalk River and the townships of Westmeath, Ross and Stafford. Bradley saw his support in Pembroke greatly reduced but received strong rural support in Bromley and Mackay townships. The CCF did well in the west ward of Pembroke, Alice Township, Golden Lake and Petawawa Township.
The Liberals did retain half of the county. In Renfrew South, Thomas Murray defended his seat with a substantial majority by 600 votes. He had been challenged John J. Foran, the reeve of Eganville, who had strong support in his home village, the town of Arnprior and Grattan Township. Murray grabbed majorities in Barry's Bay, Renfrew, Combermere and Quadville.
Thomas Murray eventually lost his seat when voters went back to the polls in 1945. Stanley Hunt retained his seat representing North Renfrew until 1958 when he was succeeded by Maurice Hamilton. Dr. John Courtland Bradley died in Pembroke on Jan. 9, 1964 at the age of 76.